Biblical Proportions

'Divine Intervention' is a visually stunning film for a select audience.

I imagine that if Luis Buñuel lived in contemporary Palestine, he would have made Divine Intervention, a film that is probably the best thing to come out of the Middle East since The Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him.

This is not, though, cinema for everyone. The opening 20 minutes give no clue as to whether or not the film has a plot, as they seem to be a disconnected series of vignettes. Actually, by the last 20 minutes, it's also not clear if the film has a plot, but by then it doesn't really matter, because by then you've seen Santa Claus chased by Palestinian youths, a checkpoint tower destroyed by the force of hot beauty, and a flying, super-ninja Palestinian woman defeat a cadre of line-dancing Israeli soldiers.

Also, you'll see something of a love story, as the silent male protagonist (Elia Suleiman, who also wrote and directed and, I think, did the catering) meets regularly with the silent female protagonist (Manal Khader, who's easily the hottest thing to come out of the Middle East since the great fireball that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah) at the checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem.

I assume their silence is a commentary on the silencing of the voices of the Palestinians in the occupied territories, but it works not only as a political statement, but aesthetically as well. Each night as they meet, a series of casually mean and banally evil occurrences fill the lives of their countrymen and oppressors. These folks exchange rude (and hilarious) comments, and then return to their tea or checkers. Only The Man and The Woman are properly quiet, as though the positive feelings they experience for each other are beyond language, which is reserved for rudeness and petty concerns.

But don't get the wrong idea; there may be a lot of depth to Divine Intervention, but it's still the funniest thing to come out of the Middle East since Khalil Gibran. It's absurdist humor in the tradition of Dali and Carrot Top (the early Carrot Top, before he sold out), with bizarre interactions creating a sort of depressing, politically oppressed Monty Python show. In one scene, for example, a French tourist asks an Israeli policeman for directions. Unable to answer her, he goes to the back of his police car and removes a handcuffed, blindfolded Palestinian prisoner, who points the way and then is shoved back in. The woman thanks the police officer and moves on.

There are about two dozen of these sequences, and they occasionally intersect and entwine, until, by the end, they almost form a cohesive story. It's a tale of humiliation, of being a subject people and the reaction to that subjection. In one of the most telling segments, an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint makes Palestinian men get out of their cars, switch clothing, get back into each other's cars, and then drive off. He does it because he can, basically, which is in many ways the worst thing about power: It becomes arbitrary, and that arbitrariness is, in whatever form, a humiliation for those subject to it.

Thus, a series of fantasy sequences occur around the checkpoint, the great symbol of the difference between the Palestinians and the Israelis. In one scene, The Woman walks right through the checkpoint because the guards are so distracted by her beauty. As she passes, the guard tower collapses to the ground--the differences between the two peoples leveled by their common love of hot brunettes. In another, The Man inflates a balloon with a picture of Yasser Arafat on it, and as the guards anxiously watch it float over the border, guns cocked, ready to shoot it out of the sky, The Man and The Woman simply drive through.

All of this is shot so beautifully that it would work even if you couldn't read the subtitles. In fact, the visuals are probably the prettiest thing to come out of the Middle East since Golda Meir. Cinematographer Marc-André Batigne, working on a low budget and without the mechanical and technical accouterment of American films, makes the most of what he has by carefully framing each shot. The compositions have a postcard quality, everything purposefully and often symmetrically arranged, small squares highlighting larger ones, and distant figures interacting on backgrounds that seem like they were drawn for the occasion.

In spite of its visual appeal, though, not everyone will enjoy Divine Intervention. I'm sure hardcore Islamists and hard-line Likudists will fail to find it amusing. I should also note that in Switzerland, in the canton of Vaudi, this film received a 12 rating, whereas in the canton of Grison, it received a 14 rating. I mention this because I know parents like to have a good idea of what their children might be seeing, especially as it relates to the mores of Grison and Vaudi.

Beyond these petty religious, political and censorial concerns, though, Divine Intervention is definitely one of the best foreign films of 2002. It was denied admissions to the Oscars because, argued the Academy, Palestine is not a country, and thus cannot submit a film for the Best Foreign Language Film of the Year category. That snub essentially recapitulates the theme of the film, and may have been a more fitting tribute to this story of country-less people than a tiny statue of a bald man ever could be. So, why not show the Academy what you think by shelling out a few shekels for this flick? It may be the finest work of fiction to come out of the Middle East since the Bible.

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